Brexit

Remain bias is damaging British journalism

BY James Holland   /  4 December 2017

Bias is obvious.

However good with words one might be, favouring one argument over another is conspicuous, especially to those who’s side you’re not taking.

This might seem like an obvious thing to say, and one that the media industry ought to be keenly aware of. But journalists are increasingly unafraid to publicly pick sides, and the phenomenon is especially evident with the advent of social media.

As someone with an unhealthy obsession with the UK’s EU referendum and its fallout, nowhere has this been more evident to me than in the Brexit debate that continues to rage in the British media today.

Many journalists — who had remained largely objective in the run up to the EU referendum — suddenly lost their impartiality in the hysteria that followed the result.

The reaction is understandable. Picking the journalist’s career path normally requires a passion for politics, and while the best in the business are able to maintain a strict objectivity, for others so passionate about political issues, this can be very difficult.

The problem is that in doing so, they reveal a partisanship that may win them fans, but that ultimately harms their reputation and the reputation of the news outlets that employ them.

I don’t want to exaggerate. The media’s reputation has not taken a nosedive since June 23rd 2016. The close relationship the industry has with politicians and businesses has always raised the British public’s suspicions. The real concern is that journalists that are actively supporting the campaign to reverse the popular vote are using their privileged political positions to try to reverse democracy. The danger this poses is easy to grasp.

At the same time, bias in journalism isn’t anything new. Editorial and opinion pages form an important part of the news package and bias on those pages is not only accepted, but expected. The important difference though is that content is overtly differentiated from the news content which is supposed to communicate the facts, free from prejudice.

But bias in journalism has mutated with the emergence of social media and, in my opinion, with Twitter in particular.

The freedom from editorial constraints that Twitter and other social media platforms have given journalists is significant. Heck, even editors are getting in on the act of voicing their partiality on social media. While a story may be edited or redacted before it is published, a tweet is posted in an instant, without the usual oversight.

From the journalist’s point of view, that may seem appropriate today. After all they may argue that they are tweeting in a personal capacity or following their editor/newspapers’s own lead. The problem is that journalists are swinging too freely from reporting the news to giving their 280-character opinions.

If a journalist shows a clear bias against David Davis or against Chukka Umuna for example, but fails to explain they are tweeting in a personal capacity, their employer’s reputation, be it the Guardian, the BBC, the Daily Mail or the Daily Mirror, is tarnished with this bias.

You cannot, one day, retweet calls for Boris Johnson to resign, then the next report critically on his visit to the UN and expect readers to forget about your previous indication of bias.

Here is a case in point: Faisal Islam is a highly respected Sky News reporter. Often in front of Number 10 with his camera crew, he and his team expertly dissect the latest political developments and confront the relevant authorities with the awkward questions they’d rather not answer.

He has risen to the top of the journalistic profession by being very good at this and he is a formidable interviewer, whose reputation stood firm in my eyes.

However, when I watched a Sky News special report entitled ‘Out And Proud’ which aired in August 2016, in which he travelled to Sunderland to interview voters there, I was saddened to see a bias had crept into his work.

In a lapse of professionalism — no doubt emboldened by the anti-Brexit hysteria gripping the UK at the time — Faisal Islam showed contempt for Boris Johnson. Watch the clip here 

 Here is a respected journalist scoffing at a voter for trusting Boris Johnson “with my own life”. He then goes on to denigrate Boris, summarising his thirty-year career as having “written a few columns”. He fails to mention that the Conservative politician has been a popular MP for nearly a decade, a relatively successful Mayor of London for eight years and was a journalist for two leading British newspapers before that.

Now, Faisal is entitled not to like Boris, and he wouldn’t be alone in that. He may not like his buffoonish behaviour. He may simply not like his decision to back the campaign to leave the EU. Whatever the reason though, this bias should not be creeping into his reports. When they do, it damages his and Sky News’ reputation.

Now, as I have already said, news outlets have always been biased; their editorial lines are often clear. It’s true, for example, that news junkies could probably tell you which side the large national newspapers supported during the referendum campaign. The reason for that though is that on the big issues facing a country, like referendums, elections or national debates (like our membership of the euro) newspapers are expected to pick sides. Their expertise and extensive coverage of an issue over many years leads to an expectation that they must by now have a preference, and that they owe the country to pronounce it.

Those instances, like the editorial and opinion pages within a newspaper, are very different from the day-to-day news reporting for which UK newspapers are respected across the world for, and the damage that this creeping bias is doing to the journalistic profession as a whole is significant.

The latest IPSOS/MORI poll showing the trust members of the general public have in different professions reveals a serious crisis for journalism:

 

Only 27% of people questioned believe journalists tell the truth. They only just come above politicians, government ministers and professional footballers in the trustworthiness stakes. A damning verdict of a profession so important to a country.

To stop our media coverage descending to a level of debate and nuance normally reserved for the football terrace during the local derby, journalists should refrain from posting, liking or retweeting their bias without qualification.

There is widespread concern that the country is too divided at the moment and our news professionals will play a significant role in expanding or bridging that divide.

Those in the media still hoping to reverse the Brexit referendum result won’t help in this regard. They will continue to report in campaign mode, dogmatically fighting for the pro-EU case against the will of the British people.

Meanwhile, the sensible majority has accepted the referendum result in very much the same way that they accept an election result that doesn’t go their way. They now expect our news outlets to report on the difficulties and benefits of the decision, without bias.

News organisations and journalists who haven’t grasped this yet are doing themselves no favours.

James Holland is a former adviser to Daniel Hannan